Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Seeking a new-language politics - Owen Jones needn't just speak Spanish

There's a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Owen Jones's recent Guardian article, 'The British left must learn to speak a new language - Spanish'.

It's implicit in the article's byline, which says: 'Labour should listen.'

A seemingly progressive call, you might readily think. But why should that injunction to listen even be urged of 'the people's party' when Labour is the enduring problem for any people-rooted, left advancement?

Lamentably, within this lofty endorsement of Podemos, Jones still fails to concede that Labour can never be a credible vehicle for change, that it's long-done, unreformable, too tainted by establishment ideology, neoliberal doctrine and historic sellout.

Like so many left-loyal-Labourites, he refuses to give it over to the Blairites. But why not? It isn't worth keeping. How could something Podemos-style ever emerge from such a compromised entity?

Even if, rather than installing another right-wing leader, it somehow manages to place a more leftist figure at the helm, Labour is now utterly defunct as a serious motor of reform. It's part of a cabal politics which, as expressed in the very street thinking of Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, has to be replaced by a real bottom-up, people-rooted politics.

Jones appears up for the task. But any consideration of such must be honest about how the Labour protectorate, including Jones, has actually served to stifle that goal.

Without recrimination, and in positive critique, we must be open about how Jones gave his all in backing Miliband and saving Labour - in the process almost begging Blairite Alan Johnson to return as the party saviour. We must reiterate how Jones advocated a No vote in the Scottish referendum, despite the Yes movement's meteoric rise, the closest thing we've ever seen to a real Podemos-style street politics.

Likewise with this article. If Podemos is the politics of the moment, why was it not championed by Jones before the election and during the referendum?

When these kind of points are put to Jones they're often met with dismissive jibes - as in: "Ever get bored of your sectarianism?" As if having a fundamental disagreement on such vital issues constitutes some petty wish for division, or that a challenging view is somehow invalid.

This is not about personal politics - something Tony Benn always, admirably avoided - or about targeting Jones. It's a rational assessment of what a key and influential figure has been mistakenly proposing, and how we might now use such errors to progress a viable alternative, the very Podemos-type alternative Jones himself writes of.

Labour is unrecoverable. But Jones is certainly not. He says this is now about a collective failure of the left, including his own:
This is not me castigating the failures of others, arrogantly assuming I have it all worked out. I don’t, and this is about my failure as much as anyone else’s.
His openness is to be applauded. Honest reflection, coming from good, reasoned debate, is something we can all, always aspire to. I do, indeed, hope Jones - with Russell Brand - is in the process of rethinking many of the positions he's adopted, that he really does now, in particular, even belatedly, see the futility of default Labourism.

But I retain serious doubts. How easy now for Jones to acknowledge a Podemos-movement politics, just as he acknowledged the Yes movement in Scotland without actually urging and working for a Yes vote. 

Jones should not just have been listening to the massive street politics that caused the poorest of Glasgow to turn out for a Yes - and then, still defiant after being stitched-up by the establishment, voted in record numbers to ditch Labour in its historic heartland. He should have been working with them/us for the same progressive outcomes.

From Madrid to Athens, Barcelona to Glasgow, it's the same basic indignados politics, not just the rejection of austerity, but a new nothing-to-lose response to decades of alienation and abandonment.

It's that same rejectionist politics that's driven the amazing Podemos victory in Barcelona, and Manuela Carmena, through leftist platform Ahora Madrid (including Podemos), to an historic breakthrough in Madrid.

Even though Iglesias favours a unified Spain, he also recognises the progressive demands energising politics in Catalonia. And with this, the more important unifying role of movement politics in connecting with people on the ground over immediate issues:
I also think that paradoxically we [Podemos], Syriza and ourselves, are playing the role [of the] social democra[tic] left. We saw this in the UK. The Scottish National Party really beat the Labour Party by criticising austerity and criticising cuts...
Interviewing Iglesias, Tariq Ali concurs, noting that the establishment imperative is not just, as in Greece, an issue over economic control, but a political emergency for the establishment, that they're determined to crush the whole radical experiment.

Iglesias agrees, but is optimistic about the gathering response: "the political opposition space in Europe is being taken over by us".

And so it is proving, with tremendous advances now for Podemos in the Spanish regional elections, resilient popular support for Syriza in Greece, and massive new confidence over the SNP's civic-minded rise in Scotland - much of it admired and supported across the UK.

While political distinctions prevail on different European streets, this is the same mode of civil resistance. Indeed, Jones should be urging the model language of political Scotland as much as any new political Spanish. Again, it's about movement rather than party politics.

The SNP are, in this regard, only valid as a popular manifestation of that movement politics - otherwise the shift from Labour to SNP could be seen as little more than the standard protest vote. It's definitively not. And, again, be certain that the establishment also know very differently. For them, this is a crisis exercise in halting a mood-movement politics, which is why they've thrown every available weapon in their considerable armoury at trying to eliminate it.

Having stolen the referendum and seen its preferred party installed at Westminster, the establishment narrative has now conveniently shifted to fixing-up Labour. The system, after all, is only legitimised by that old trope, a 'necessary and viable opposition'.

Predictably, much focus is now being given over to Labour's successor. Like the tired old 'parliamentary choice', we're now expected to pick over the 'differences' between Burnham, Kendall et al. Again, Jones appears dissatisfied:
Labour’s leadership “debate” is so far anything but: platitudes instead of policies. So let’s have some of the latter and decide what future – if any – Labour actually has.
Jones reiterates his discontent in his latest video, 'What's the point in the Labour party now?'  He derides the leadership contest with its "vacuous buzzwords", such as 'aspiration', and ends with the question: "What are we going to do about the Labour party?"

But why even engage this 'debate'? It's an utterly futile exercise. If Jones is serious about Podemos politics, start writing in a consistent Podemos vernacular, rather than lamenting Labour's decline and being part of the 're-branding'. Otherwise all we'll get is another dragged-out five years preparing for the next Labour 'deliverance'.

And if Podemos politics is about pulling people away from controlling parties and their clone narrative, it's also, even more seriously, about pulling them away from an all-controlling media.

As Iglesias so acutely asserts:
We believe that the media is the real terrain of the ideological battle...if you don't win the battle with the media, then you don't exist politically.
Even though Iglesias is speaking the voice of the street, he's actually articulating a useful Gramscian Marxism in his reading of the organic crisis of the dominant system and the vital role of counter-intellectuals in breaking elite hegemony through popular alternative politics.

Which raises another elementary question: how can would-be radicals like Jones seriously assist that counter-hegemony, that vital street-led narrative, from within a liberal, power-serving media?

There now needs to be the greatest war ever waged on all forms of the dominant media. And, like sticking with format party politics, that's not going to be advanced from inside the cosy establishment confines of the Guardian.

So there needs to be a fundamental re-evaluation of how to move beyond that existing media, to promoting exciting, alternative popular platforms, just as there has to be a decisive break with working to prop-up and legitimate establishment parties.

In the same vein, there has to be a decisive challenge to the very structures of parliamentary power and the UK state. 

As with cabal parties and the boundary-policing media, the political Union, and its corporate arm ,UK Inc, is a crucial part of the establishment matrix; nothing of any radical worth can be realised from working within it.

Jones has declared his preference for a federalist UK. But this still holds to the same essential covenant of Unionist politics, none of which allows for any truly alternative model of governance. As part of an establishment-left effort to save Labour, Jones has played a substantive part in holding back Scotland's aspirations towards radical independence. How street-savvy or Podemos-affirming is that? 

Nor can any radical result ever be realised under our grotesque Westminster electoral system. The Electoral Reform Society has just issued a key report declaring the prevailing voting system 'bust', after the most unrepresentative election in history.

Again, Jones has no particular need, in this regard, to look towards Spain. Just turn to the vibrant possibilities in Scotland, where under Holyrood's modern PR system, a range of Green and small left parties are now organising for a real chance of meaningful representation at next May's election.

There can be no serious radical shift under the current political/electoral system. It has to be rendered illegitimate and opposed on the street, not through hoped-for internal reform.

Meanwhile, back in our fantasia democracy, electors face another five-year search for New Improved Labour, forlorn hopes of some future PR deal, and an enduring zombie-land of neoliberal politics. There's also the UK state's relentless 'world power' addiction to warmongering and coveting of mad missiles on the Clyde.

Still, there's always our enchanting royals and feudal UKania keeping us lowly subjects loyal and steadfast, helping to preserve our beloved institutions, constitutional authority and unifying politics. As Tom Nairn so quintessentially asks: 'Are we all mad?'    

Where's the political exit? Isn't it now time for modernity, real democratic participation and a year-zero politics?

If Jones is really serious about turning to Spain and Podemos, about acting in the spirit of Iglesias, and defining a new-era project, here's three immediate tasks to consider:

1. Abandon Labour. The bulk of Scotland already has. Urge all other leftists, unions and civil institutions to do likewise.
2. Dispense with the left/liberal establishment media. Only a radically, corporate-free new media can speak with a truly independent street voice.
3. Reject parliament's stacked system and do everything possible to help break-up the UK state, in pursuit of independence for Scotland and other regional parliaments.

Beyond Owen Jones's apparent endorsement of Podemos lies a real testing choice: lifeboat politics - trying to rescue a sinking Labour party, keeping safe within the establishment media and clinging to an archaic state; or real movement politics - standing outside collaborator parties, writing as an independent journalist and taking a decisive position in casting adrift all those archaic institutions.

Is Jones ready to advance these core ideas, a new street politics untainted and unconstrained by the old system? Let's see.


AW said...

"3. Reject parliament's stacked system and do everything possible to help break-up the UK state, in pursuit of independence for Scotland and other regional parliaments" Does this include leaving the EU?

As for call-to-action 1, having read Jones's Guardian piece on Podemos, & his LMD piece (why was it not in the Graun?) & then seen his video, I get the impression OJ is looking to make some sort of radical break from his long-held position. His final qu, 'what do you think i should do?' (or sth like that), suggests he's looking for some sort of mandate/justification from his audience. It made me think that he was in fact thinking of backing, and possibly trying to organise, a left alternative to Labour. The question is, does he have the credibility to pull it off, and what form would it take? For example, would he back one particular party (my guess would be the Greens), or try to help build an alliance of some combination of: TUSC, Left Unity, Greens, SNP, Plaid, Respect.

Or maybe I'm being naive. He certainly has the ego for an audacious move. What do you think?

John Hilley said...

Thanks, AW.
The issue of the EU has so many facets to consider, but, briefly, it's another of those establishment-defined narratives and elite-centred debates that radicals really have to step away from to make any sense of how the real union of people and movement politics advances.

Is Jones about to make some radical break? Well, many reading his approval of Podemos would certainly hope for something more radical in the making. As I suggest, there's nothing yet to seriously suggest that's on the cards. Still, as I say, let's see.

AW said...

Thanks. As ever it's a wonderful article. I feel genuinely confused by the EU issue, I just connected it with what you're saying about the UK: any major break-up, Scotland or EU, could be a prime opportunity for the left.

Yes, I think it's best to wait and see what OJ will do. But imagine he did try to organise/lead the broad left, is he the best person for the job? He is rather brittle, a positive when he's confronting right-wingers on TV debates, not so helpful in trying to build alliances. Plus, there is something fundamentally amiss when you display such deep understanding of the problems of our time, and then say 'vote Labour' or 'don't question the integrity of the Guardian'. He was on a show presented by Richard Bacon, who introduced him as to the left of Karl Marx, and then asked OJ what the solution is. His response: 'a living wage'. Christ! No mention of the means of production at all. For me, this is morally worse than the right-winger who at least believes in what he's doing (I'm sure some of them do).

John Hilley said...

Really thoughtful observations, thanks. And, yes, as your examples suggest, I think Jones still has a considerable journey towards a real radical politics, particularly in relation to his positioning on Labour and the media.

John Hilley said...

Some of Owen Jones's Twitter responses to my piece:

Owen Jones ‏@OwenJones84
@johnwhilley @medialens @bellacaledonia I don't write subheadings. Ever. You know this. I only write the text.

John Hilley ‏@johnwhilley
.@OwenJones84 I wrote: 'It's implicit in the article's byline' - your concerns over Labour in this and your other pieces on where left goes.

Owen Jones ‏@OwenJones84
@johnwhilley this piece had nothing to do with what Labour should do. It was a piece about the radical left. Just doesn't fit your narrative

John Hilley @johnwhilley
.@OwenJones84 My piece is about how yours doesn't square with your own narrative of left change, which is still committed to saving Labour.

Owen Jones @OwenJones84
@johnwhilley No it isn't. You are so blinded by your own dogma you are incapable of even understanding this.

John Hilley @johnwhilley
.@OwenJones84 Owen, I don't call what you write 'dogma'. Why the vitriol when all I'm doing is exploring your position on these key issues?

Owen Jones ‏@OwenJones84
@johnwhilley if you think that's vitriol or even close, good job such a sensitive soul doesn't have my timeline to deal with!



Owen Jones ‏@OwenJones84
@johnwhilley and neither did I beg Alan Johnson (!) to become leader. I was asked to write a *profile* piece for the *news* section

John Hilley ‏@johnwhilley
.@OwenJones84 You wrote a high-praise piece for a war-supporting Blairite, strongly wishing him back to Labour fold. Independent journalism?

Owen Jones ‏@OwenJones84
@johnwhilley if you think I'm a supporter of any Blairite, you've lost it. It was a profile. Note I refuse to back any leadership candidate.

John Hilley ‏@johnwhilley
.@OwenJones84 A highly approving profile of someone who has no regrets over war http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2007/feb/21/iraq.labour … Odd work for a radical journalist.



Owen Jones ‏@OwenJones84
@johnwhilley indeed why not reserve your anger for Galloway? Unlike me, he actually did call for Alan Johnson to take over

John Hilley ‏@johnwhilley
.@OwenJones84 Be assured, I'm not angry. Just seeking reasoned debate. I also made similar critiques of Galloway's position over indy issue.



Chris Shaw ‏@kalahar1
@OwenJones84 @johnwhilley Why are you so defensive Owen. John's piece seems fair, honest and in the spirit of open debate.

Owen Jones ‏@OwenJones84
@kalahar1 @johnwhilley Not defensive. I'm used to my views being distorted like this, normally by the right, and I'm correcting it

Owen Jones @OwenJones84
@kalahar1 @johnwhilley the view of people like you is I must accept people making up my politics. Tough. Not going to happen

John Hilley @johnwhilley
.@OwenJones84 @kalahar1 People 'like me' are, I hope, trying to have a rational discussion. Your politics, your affair. I'm only commenting.


Anonymous said...

great article John! great mythbusting and you articulated many of the things I myself have expressed and felt. Sadly judging by the response of Mr.Jones, he still hasn't gotten it. I'm scunnnered however you didn't mention the Podermos equivalents that exist in Britain like the Greens, Respect Party, or SWP. Aside from that great blog you post!

Anonymous said...

great article John! what you typed are views i've long articulated and have difficulty trying to convey to Labor supporters. I'm disappointed however that you didn't mention the Respect Party or the Greens, I know we can't talk about SWP because of the rape scandal but The Greens and Respect haven't any as far as I'm concerned. Pity Jones hasn't gotten the message though. As long as that happens and "socalists" such as he and Seumas Milne continue to put stock in Labor we'll never have a true socialist party But we do have Podermos equivalents in the UK and that is the Greens, Respect Party or the SWP.

John Hilley said...

Thanks for your comments. Point taken about the parties you mention. I think the main issue is the movement politics itself under which potential parties might come together. That's going to be a potentially different process in the UK, as opposed to how Podemos has risen to its current prominence in Spain.

As I noted in a reply on the piece (posted by Media Lens at their facebook page):

'Whatever its founding...[Podemis is] a real politics of the street, a real movement politics. I agree, it's not easy to see precisely where that comes from here, but it must start from a fundamental rejection of Labour, probably morphing into some new left political party in umbrella alignment with Greens, SNP and leftist others. But as Iglesias asserts, this isn't just about parties. It's about a movement politics taking on the establishment at multiple levels, and none more so than waging a real radical offensive against its vital media arm.'


Anonymous said...

@John Hilley Hey John! that's true we need an articulate and robust socialist/progressive movement and I think the key to it particularly in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada and elsewhere is to reject the often two major parties the Crips and Bloods, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, McDonalds and Burger which in Britan is essentially New Labor, The Tories, Lib-Dems, and now UKIP which are the British Tea Party Republicans in my opinion. That being said if want to reach out to the Owen Jones/Seumas Milne of the UK those who claim to be socialist yet still are associated with Neo-liberal Party known as Labor, which when John Bolton ended his interview with John Pilger and asked him "Are you a Labor Party member?" (not knowing it was Blair's Labor Party helping the ruling Republican/Neo-Conservative cult launch the Iraq War) Pilger responded "No Labor, their the Conservatives in our country". Pilger later said in an interview with the Progressive that "we have an extreme right-wing government in this country although its called Labor" and that's certaintly been true for Australia which had the 'New' Labor cult of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. Now all that being said its why I would like to see us, the Owen Jones/Seumas Milne/Monbiots of the world start to endorse and get involved in the Podermos equivalents available in the UK. Respect, The Greens, SWP, and heck why not even get those parties to form a coalition or even merge and be the left-wing backlash the UK needs. We may not have the millions of pounds UKIP and the Lib-Dems have, but I'm pretty sure if those who are sincere about being socialist, environmentalists, socially liberals, and so fourth just simply rejected the Labor Party and the media that endorse them altogether, then those small left-wing parties, and the movement as a whole that 'revolution' Russell Brand was banging on about can take off and have its momentum.

AW said...

No further need to wait and see! Corbyn throws his hat in, and OJ is back singing the same old tune. Lost cause.

John Hilley said...

More responses and comment here at Media Lens facebook posting of article: